Twitter has proven to be an effective tool in propelling faded stars back into the spotlight. It’s in this fashion that Nelly’s career has gained noticeable traction over the past year—thanks to the powerful PR that comes with participating in a Verzuz battle that, by design, elicits praise and recognition on social media for one’s contributions to the culture. However, his sudden re-emergence into the zeitgeist, that includes a new partnership with Burger King and lifetime achievement award from BET, has led many to overlook the numerous allegations of sexual assault that the St. Louis rapper has faced over the past four years.
In October 2017, Nelly, born Cornell Hayes Jr., was arrested and charged with second-degree rape after a then-22-year-old college student named Monique Greene claimed he assaulted her on his tour bus ahead of a Florida Georgia Line concert where he was set to perform. Nelly’s attorney called the accusations false, citing “greed and vindictiveness” as Greene’s motivation. A week later, the case was dropped after Greene failed to cooperate—her reason being that she believed the “system would fail her,” according to her attorney.
In December of that year, Greene sued the “Hot in Herre” rapper for sexual assault and defamation after he publicly denied the incident. Court papers filed in the lawsuit also included allegations from two anonymous women in England claiming that the musician groped them and masturbated in front of them after being invited to hang out with him and his entourage in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Nelly filed a countersuit in January 2018, calling the accusations “completely fabricated and an attempt to give credibility to his accuser’s far-fetched story.” By September, Greene and Nelly had reportedly mutually settled the lawsuit.
Essex police also halted an investigation into the case of one of the English women, who accused Nelly of assaulting her after a gig at Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, due to her failure to testify. Nevertheless, Nelly publicly thanked U.K. police for “thoroughly investigating” the allegations. His statement also included a section where he frustratingly mentions that he “stands with women and real survivors.”
Despite this harrowing series of events that received mass news coverage at the time, Nelly’s public image has seemingly never been better. Aside from his appearance on Verzuz—a platform that has welcomed other artists accused of sexual assault, including accused serial rapist Russell Simmons—cultural discussions about Black people’s involvement in the country genre and nostalgia for Y2K acts on social media has created a perfect storm for a Nellyssance. Likewise, the musician competed on the 29th season of Dancing with The Stars in the fall of 2020 and placed third, despite the recency of those accusations. During that time, he also released his second collaboration with Florida Georgia Line after 2013’s successful “Cruise (Remix)” called “Lil Bit” that went platinum. The song is from his 2021 “country-influenced” album Heartland, which landed in the top 10 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and includes features from other country hitmakers such as Darius Rucker and Kane Brown. And he was able to promote the album on Good Morning America, The Kelly Clarkson Show and CMT Crossroads.
Most recently, you may have spotted Nelly in commercials for Burger King’s new Keep It Real Meals. Launched in response to the wave of celebrity fast food partnerships at companies like McDonalds and Taco Bell and to promote Burger King’s ban of certain artificial ingredients, the campaign sells several meals under the actual names of famous artists Anitta, Lil Huddy, and Nelly. While public figures of varying popularity commonly appear in ad campaigns, the current spotlight on fast-food chains and their extravagant, often celebrity-focused marketing tactics in the social media era—not to mention the clout artists like Saweetie and Lil Nas X receive for how many deals they can land and with which brands—feels like Nelly benefiting from a larger cultural moment outside whatever art he’s producing of his own.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest moments in Nelly’s career over the past decade will be on Oct. 5 when he receives the I Am Hip Hop Award at the 2021 BET Hip Hop Awards “for his massive contributions to music and the culture at large,” according to the network. Past recipients of the lifetime achievement award include Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J, Master P and Snoop Dogg, among others.
“I am honored to receive this award and humbled to be in such great company of past artists who have received this award,” Nelly said in a statement. “I have been blessed to work with some incredible people in my career, making 22 years go by in the blink of an eye. This award isn’t just about Nelly; it is about my fans, BET, and the people that continue to support me and allow me to do what I love to do.”
The disregard for Nelly’s alleged predatory behavior from brands and industry leaders alike unfortunately doesn’t come as much of a surprise—not solely because the music industry has struggled to hold artists accountable for sexual misconduct in the wake of #MeToo compared to other sectors of entertainment, but because he sits at a tricky axis, as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has written about radio host Charlamagne tha God in her book THICK, of “men that are not Bill Cosby big and men that did not mostly [assault] white women like Harvey Weinstein.” Likewise, it’s easy to feign ignorance about an older, less relevant, non-white musician’s legal troubles, particularly in the currently oversaturated landscape of popular music and celebrities.
Admittedly, when the first accusation emerged, there weren’t as many highly visible, mainstream opportunities to cancel Nelly from. But his case shows how easily abusers can slip through the cracks when social media doesn’t apply enough ardor and consistency to these conversations, an unfortunately urgent factor in seeking justice nowadays.